The Kindness Quotient

We all strive to teach our children to be empathetic, ethical people. But new research points to a troubling development: These traits aren’t sticking as they grow up. Here’s what really works in creating more caring kids.

I’m not sure when the idea of “Girl Club” took root in my 4-year-old daughter Audrey’s mind, but planning it has been keeping her mighty busy. Getting ready for the highly anticipated event entails piling every one of her princess costumes into a giant heap, getting her big brother to pencil “Keep Out” signs and tape them to her door, and trying to enlist me to purchase a wide array of snacks.

The prep work also involves re-evaluating the guest list— repeatedly. This would be fine except that, this being “Girl Club” and all, the no-boys policy applies to an especially sweet and wide-eyed friend in her preschool class. “He just doesn’t get it,” she told me in exasperation from her car seat as I drove her home one recent afternoon. So she helped him out: “I told him, Beckett, you’ll either get an invitation or you won’t. If you get one, you’re invited. If you don’t get one, you’re not invited.”

That led to some discussion, in what I struggled to put into preschool terms, about the problem with exclusionary clubs in general. But it also made me wonder: How do you know, when you think you’re raising a loving, if assertive, child, if you’re actually harboring one of next year’s mean girls of kindergarten? And what should I be doing to make sure that’s not the case? Should I treat Audrey gently and hope she picks up on the example—or be stern and tell her no clubs allowed? Should guilt over a friend’s feelings come into play, and if so, how can I stoke some more of it in a girl who’s convinced the problem is a mommy who just doesn’t understand how “Girl Club” works?

Unlike teaching my 8-year-old son to organize his backpack or getting Audrey to clean up her room (ha!), teaching a child to be less self-centered can feel a little nebulous, something you might scratch off the parenting list only after a lifetime of patience-fueled interactions. But if kindness is all about daily practice, experts say there are specific and effective ways to create more caring kids—from targeting your praise to better managing your own negative emotions to embracing a bigger swath of your community. If that’s the good news, some less positive research points to how much we may need kindness interventions—and stat. Studies show that in the past decade or so, the selflessness we try to instill in our younger kids when we encourage them, for the hundredth time, to share isn’t necessarily sticking as they grow up. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan found that since the year 2000, college students have shown marked declines in empathy—a roughly 40-percent decline compared with students of 30 years ago. Then a few years later, a study by psychologists at Harvard’s School of Education focused on how kindness has slipped on school-age kids’ list of concerns. Surveying 10,000 middle and high school students, researcher Richard Weissbourd, Ph.D., and a colleague found that only 20 percent chose “caring for others” as their top priority, while 80 percent picked achievement or personal happiness as their goal.

Of the top two scorers, “personal happiness” might not be as innocuous as it sounds. It’s one thing for kids to follow their bliss but quite another to feel, as Weissbourd fears, that their personal well-being comes before everyone else’s. But what really worries him at the moment is the other top choice. “Achievement is really the winner here, in a bad way,” he says, noting that another finding in his survey offers a hint as to why that’s the case. Students were also three times more likely to say that their parents valued achievement as their top priority than they were to say their parents most valued caring.

As he tells it, it’s not so much that moms and dads are utterly checked out on the task of creating decent kids but that other pressures are getting in the way. “If you ask parents how important it is that my child is a good, kind, caring, and ethical person, they’re very likely to say it’s the most important thing,”he says. But things like “high-stakes testing”—and, it would seem, cold, hard economic realities—cause parents to worry about their kids’ futures in a way that can overshadow their deeper intentions. Says Weissbourd: “Our anxiety is drowning out the other message.”

When it comes to nurturing goodness, it helps to know exactly what you’re after from your child. Being affable and polite, for example, only takes things so far. “A lot of Harvard students are what you might call nice,”Weissbourd says, “but that doesn’t stop them from leaving their crap all over the hallways and cafeteria.” Real kindness, he says, hinges on a larger moral awareness that needs to be woven into your family’s identity so that something like making extra work for a janitor will register as wrong at your child’s core, just the way the world’s larger injustices do. Only then, he believes, do we have a chance at creating a generation of children who are at least sometimes able to put their own needs behind the needs of society—not to mention being willing to put down the iPad long enough to notice someone needs a hand.

But if teaching kids to“zoom out” to see the big picture is one important skill, “zooming in” to relate deeply to the person in front of them is equally important, Weissbourd says. Much of that empathic ability, research demonstrates, is developed well before kids reach preschool. Genetics show that about 25 percent of a child’s ability to feel others’ pain is likely to be inherited and that toddlers as young as 18 months can display their first altruistic tendencies. But while so much of this groundwork for kindness happens early, a growing body of social-emotional learning research shows that playing catch-up with things like empathy is possible, too. And this can be done not only for individual children but also in large-scale ways, through things like structured school programs.

In 1996, that idea was a tough sell, says Mary Gordon, the Toronto-based founder of one of the earliest and most-researched social learning programs, Roots of Empathy. At that time, she says, the neuroscience behind our ability to feel others’ emotions was in its infancy and empathy wasn’t in the water culturally like it is now, as schools look to grapple with problems like bullying.

Her program, now in place in schools in California, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C., among other U.S. and Canadian locations, helped change that. Independent university research into the yearlong courses has shown they boost pro-social behavior like sharing and helping others by up to 75 percent (compared to closely matched classes with no course offered.) Studies also show an 88 percent drop in aggressive behavior—something that actually increases when left unchecked in control classrooms.

The key to so much statistical magic? The irresistible, cooing pull of an infant. Gordon’s program centers on bringing in a baby, along with his or her mother and a trained instructor, and harnessing the child’s basic adorableness and neediness to jumpstart what she describes as an experiential course on reading and responding to others. While the children might start by lying down on a blanket with their heads positioned to see the world from the baby’s point of view, they work up to imagining that same 6-month-old one day facing some of their own social challenges. As Gordon explains, “If the baby captivates the kids, discussions along the lines of ‘How would that baby feel if someone told her she couldn’t play in kindergarten?’ really hit home.” The improvement in students’ ability to include others and overlook differences is the top rave Gordon hears from teachers.

And that, of course, brings me back to, uh, Girl Club. When I bring it up with Gordon, she chuckles a bit and tells me that Audrey’s behavior is pretty typical. And my task, as she describes it, is not to drop the anvil of discipline so much as to tug on my daughter’s emotions. I was prepared to try when Audrey woke up the next morning and launched her plans again. She was going to need some new costumes, she informed me, for her new club. Beckett, along with, as she put it, “everyone at school” would be coming over. And that meant she needed a “Lego boy” costume, along with a “Wyld Style” option for her. “He’s going to be my backup,” she explained. “He’ll stick by my side until I need him, and then he’ll do spy stuff.” I’m counting this as progress, at least for now. “Wait until age 8,” Gordon had told me the day before. “That’s when full-fledged, card-carrying club-related behavior really rears its head.” In the meantime, she and other experts share tips on how to build kinder kids.

Parse the praise. The next time your child makes her bed or clears the table, Weissbourd suggests, try saying nothing about it. Setting higher expectations, says Weissbourd, is key to building better kids, and finishing chores should be a given. Instead, save compliments for when he or she does something more extraordinary, like helping you with your chores without being asked.

Refine the message. As Weissbourd’s Harvard study shows, the “power and frequency” of parental messages about kindness are key to having them taking hold in kids. Directly telling your son or daughter “It’s important to me that you are a kind and caring person” [not only] establishes a crucial expectation. Ideally, it helps make caring part of their identity. Studies show that age 8 is the sweet spot for this kind of message, since kids at this age are at a key point in forming their identities. For 3- to 6-year-olds, research shows that encouraging them to “be a helper” can be 25 percent more effective in instilling cooperative behavior than telling them simply “to help.”

Expand your child’s area of concern. Experts say it’s relatively easy for an 8-year-old to care about his friends and harder, perhaps, for him to care about people who are different or unfamiliar. So give your child opportunities to stretch himself: Have a younger child or the new student over, or volunteer at a soup kitchen together. Simply saying grace or finding another way to routinely express gratitude can also be important in getting kids to “zoom out” of their immediate experience. “When you appreciate what you have it helps you appreciate what others don’t have,” Weissbourd says.

Lower the temperature. Just as your child’s refusal to get dressed at 7:30 a.m. might be an obstacle to your being the kind parent you want to be, preschoolers’ anger or frustration will be a stumbling block on their way to being sweet and generous. Teaching them to calm down in heated moments is crucial to the kind of “frontal lobe” control traits like selflessness and
altruism require, says psychologist Karen Barrett. The next time a meltdown threatens to derail their better intentions, teach them to mindfully take 5 breaths before you address something like how their grabbing a toy might have made another child feel.

Check yourself. Similarly, your own control of uglier emotions is important as a model for your kids, says Mark Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. So the next time you feel “triggered” into highly uncharitable behavior (morning drop-off anyone?), he says, take what he calls a “metamoment.” Imagine how either your “best self” or your parenting hero might handle the situation. Then proceed kindly.